Grid Shutdown: Boil Water Advisory

If you have ever had a water main break on your street or any other service disruption to your water supply you may have experienced a Boil Water Advisory or a Boil Water Order. Boil water advisories/orders are the official response from the people running the water system. Below is a brief description of when a system would issue a boil water advisory or order and some general ideas for what should and should not be done as someone under a boil water advisory/order.

Source: districtgov.org

The good news about a boil water advisory is that they are often issued as a precautionary measure. Meaning they are often used in cases where the water isn’t actually dangerous. The system operators issue the warnings so they have done the proper due diligence. The liabilities involved if someone gets sick or dies and the public wasn’t informed are huge. Ok, at this point you may be wondering what sort of situations would require a boil water advisory. Typically any time there will be work on the distribution system requiring lowering the pressure or if the disinfection of the water system is interrupted for a long time.

Boil water orders are more serious. They come into place when large and persistent problems occur. Things like contamination of the source water and major failure of critical treatment equipment can cause boil water orders.

Boil Water Notice From The Regional District Of North Okanagan (source: vernonblog.blogspot.com)

The first thing you should do when you learn about a boil water advisory or order is read the information given to you. It will have instructions for you. It will have essential information for you like the cause if it is known and the expected duration. It will also list acceptable uses of the water, you might need to boil before drinking but washing is fine. Or you may not be able to use the water for gardening if the reason is due to chemical contamination. If you actually read the notice you will appear to have inside knowledge because in my experience very few people will ever read them. It will also list sources for alternative drinking water supply. Watch how fast the corner store sells out of water. In my experience, people only let this happen once. Then they start keeping a supply.  The written notice will usually only talk about “drinking” but the list of activities that require boiled water include food preparation, coffee makers (some don’t boil the water long enough or hot enough), brushing teeth, making ice, making infant formula and anything going into an immune compromised person.  Veterinarians also recommend that any water given to a domesticated house pet should also be boiled.  Livestock are a different story.  Anything that is already free range is already drinking untreated water and will probably be unaffected by drinking the unboiled water.  However, there is still a limit for bacteria concentrations in water consumed by livestock, free range or not, just like there is for every other animal (including us) on the planet.  Here is a link to the standards for water uses for the Province of British Columbia, use table 1 as a guidline for how to use water during a boil water advisory or boil water order.  If table 1 says “no applicable standard” then it is safe to use the unboiled water. http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/wat/wq/BCguidelines/microbiology/microbiology.html#toc

The biggest thing you should not do is abandon drinking tap water in favor of bottled water. This is a mistake. If you do this you are still at risk but you are significantly less likely to hear about it if something is wrong. Another thing to avoid doing is panic. This is one of those things where no news is good news. I tell the people that if you stop seeing me and hearing from me then everything is back to normal. This is because I am legislated to tell the public when there is a problem. At this time I also tell them the time line as does the written notice. After two consecutive clean water tests the system and water return to normal. It is also way too time and cost prohibitive to go back door to door and say “everything is fine now”.
If you live in a large city, there will probably be some media coverage of the return to normal situation. Otherwise if you don’t hear anything. After the date on the notice your water is fine. If there is still a problem they are legally required to tell you again about the problem.  Neither a boil water advisory or boil water order is something to panic about it is not time to call a well driller and go off the water system completely (if that is even an option where you live). It is time to start using your preparations and your backup water supplies.

If you don’t want to or can’t boil your water then you can always use an alternative form of disinfection.  Either ultraviolet radiation, sodium hypochlorite or calcium hypochlorite are acceptable alternatives.  Be careful of using these alternatives for highly turbid water sources.  The floating debris in the water can hide pathogens, cryptosporidum is highly resistant to chlorine as is girarda adding enough chlorine to kill these two microorganisims will make the water unsafe to drink.  Turbidity can also react with the chlorine to form hazardous chemical byproducts. Remember turbidity is removed from the water by setteling and filtering before disinfection to avoid these two problems. You may want to install a water filter in your home or purchase a portable water filter as a backup.

All that is left is what needs to be done after the boil water notice or order is lifted and everything returns to normal.  Flush all water-using fixtures like faucets and showers for at least one minute. Drain and flush all ice-making machines in your refrigerator. Run water softeners through a regeneration cycle.  Drain and refill hot water tanks set below 45 C (normal setting is 60 C). Change any filters either under sink style, on the faucet style and the ones in a jug in the refrigerator, regardless of the type of filter.  Filters that are designed for untreated water will not need to be changed unless they are used up.

Sewage Emergency: Thunder Bay Flooding

Recently the city of Thunder Bay Ontario experienced devastating flooding. There was enough water to flood out the waste water treatment plant. This effectively shut down the sewage collection and treatment system for the entire city. This turned the entire city to a zone without sanitation.  Over 1000 houses needed to be evacuated, and some people needed to evacuate immediately.

Contaminated Water Flooding Thunder Bay (from news.nationalpost.com)

The flood hit the city at night, and people living in basement apartments woke up to furniture floating in sewage.  One lucky family woke up to their baby’s crib (and baby) floating in sewage.  The rest discovered that their house smelled horrible when they woke up.

What overloaded the system was a prolonged rainstorm above the 100 year storm levels and the normal waste water levels. Combined sewers meant that all this water was supposed to be treated at the waste water treatment plant.  When the flooding reached the facility, the pumps shorted out, as in most large facilities most of the control electronics (there are a lot) are stored in the basement.  Electronics underwater rarely fair well, this shut down the entire facility.  Large volumes of contaminated water had nowhere else to go and it started covering most of the city. People had anywhere from 4 inches to 6 feet of sewage in their homes.

Sewage Flooded Basement (from cbc.ca)

The city instructed residents not to use water, because all the flushed toilet water was ending up in basements and free flowing in the street. People didn’t stop washing and flushing. Now, when there is sewage everywhere there is a huge need to wash and keep clean. But when all you have is water for hygiene, all that waste will end up in the street or in your basement.  So there are strong reasons to use water, and strong reasons not to flush anything down the drain.  This is a good reason to have water-less cleaners available for when the waste has nowhere to go. Alternatively it is also a good reason to have short term storage for household waste.  There is no point in flushing the toilet if it just ends up in your basement.  I would personally deal with twenty feces filled buckets then one flooded basement.

When there is sewage in your house the environment becomes so toxic that even sleeping overnight can cause respiratory illnesses. Continue reading

Well Disinfection: What To Do After Contamination Occurs

It is a common misconception that ground water is safe from contamination. This simply is not true. Wells can easily become contaminated if the proper maintenance isn’t taken and even with proper maintenance they can become contaminated during an emergency like a flood. See my article on Ground water and Wells for the proper maintenance of wells to prevent contamination.

Wells can become contaminated two separate ways. The first one is harder to control.  It happens when the entire aquifer becomes contaminated. This can happen when there is an environmental spill of something (anything really) that percolates into the aquifer in or around the recharge area. This could be on your property or a hundred miles away. It all depends on the aquifer.

How Contamination Enters A Well: From: http://www.health.gov.on.ca

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